Red Maple as Bonsai

Red Maple, Acer rubrum, is a North American forest tree with a range extending from southeastern Canada to Florida. It’s well regarded as a street tree for great fall color and less sidewalk issues than other maples. 

It’s a bit of a stretch to suggest I have wide bonsai experience with Red Maple. I have, however, taken care of an older one for 10 years, and have a few thoughts.

Anne Spencer designed and grew the tree featured here for 20 years, from a 3-year old plant. For the last 10 it’s been in my garden. Almost all the photos are Anne’s, except the last two. 


The first images from Anne Spencer’s ‘adoption papers’, the complete photographic history handed to those lucky enough to get one of her trees. The photo on the left is from 1991 when it was 3 years old.


Here is the Red Maple in 1999, showing the long internodes that Anne said took nearly 20 years to simmer down into polite short ones. 


In 2004 it’s 16 years old. The structure that it retains today was well in place by then.


In 2005 in a show.


In 2006. 


Anne said the internodes were starting to behave in 2008. Also the nebari is fusing well.

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In 2008 Anne documented her leaf reduction technique to bring light into the interior and balance strong areas.


In 2014, when the maple had been in my garden for a few years already. Here the tree had settled into middle age and the petioles and internodes were shorter. Much like Anne I’ve partially defoliated occasionally to weaken overly strong branches.


And as it looks in August, 2021, exactly 30 years since Anne’s first photo of it. Making it 33 years from seed. 19″ / 48cm tall from soil line. We upsized the pot after the last photo, needing more wiggle room. A tree as mature as this is going to lose a twig or branch now and then, and you can see one in the crown at about 1:30 that’s been getting weaker the last couple years. We’re fertilizing it a bit more, which can often resurrect weaker branches. If we lose it, so it goes. Crowns on old freely growing trees are not uniform after all. They are broken up into parts. Which this one is beginning to do, following suit with old tree mechanics.

My thoughts? In the end zone, it’s a solid species for bonsai. Easy to maintain, doesn’t get argumentative, and the silvery bark is just lovely. 

A young Red Maple’s internodes may be hard to manage, though. If you wish to try this species my suggestion is to leave more shoots than you want, as that will eventually shorten all future shoots. Here’s a post about that technique in Deciduous Early Development.

As for sun tolerance, I keep Anne’s tree under a 40% shade area in summer so it’s more sun tolerant than the native Vine Maple which prefers deeper shade. But that makes sense as the Vine Maple is an understory plant whereas the Red Maple is a canopy tree.

As for leaf technique, it appears similar to Japanese Maple. When older it won’t likely enjoy full defoliation, but perhaps try the selective leaf surface reduction as we do with Japanese Maple.

These are just my impressions. Feel free to share your experiences with Red Maple.

Here’s a remembrance of Anne Spencer and her Red Maple.

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  1. skipp serrano says:

    What a beautiful tree. As an almost native Mainer, I’ve always wondered how a red maple would reduce. Now I know. Thanks for the post.
    If I may, Id like to ask a question along this lines. A year ago, while walking on the beach in Florida I came across an Almond seed. I brought it home and planted it im sphagnum moss, not expecting it to germinate, since I didn’t take the seed out of the shell. It did germinate and now I’m the caretaker of a growing plant with huge leaves and much too long internodes.
    Any ideas on how to deal with it would be appreciated.
    Since Im 82 years young, I doubt I’ll ever see it develop but, I’d like to start it along for someone else.
    I always look forward to your posts and always archive them, for future reference. Keep posting.

  2. Todd Guenzburger says:

    Thank you for sharing Michael.. Anne was my very first teacher. I also have an Acer Rubrum of Anne’s which, I suspect, is a sibling of yours given the timing. If I could lay my hands on the pedigree she gave me I could confirm. Sadly, I would say mine’s internodes never did “settle down” and last summer I lost nearly all of the crown.
    I also have a crataegus and ulmus parvifolia from her. Her gift with deciduous trees aligned with my Midwestern heritage. Oh what great specimens were never brought into the world with her too early death.

  3. kdlorenz1 says:

    B. Since we both have Red Maples I thought I would share with you. K. Kenneth D. Lorenzen

  4. David Schleser says:

    My biggest complaint with red maples is the very long leaf petioles that tend to give young vigorous trees a shaggy appearance

    • crataegus says:

      It is hard to manage those petioles! If we focus on winter display that is of less importance. But they can be shaggy during the growing season, no mistake.

      • Jerry Norbury says:

        I have the same issue with Field maples (Acer Campestre) – but you can defoliate them multiple times per year and that helps.

  5. Terry Davis says:

    I had collected a Yatsubusa red maple in Florida. Mature leaves about an inch and very twiggy. Through a long series if misadventures, it is no longer with us.
    I think all the native Msoles are highly susceptible to verticillium heartwood rot. I use sterile tools, spray the cuts with alcohol, seal with Topjin Elmers, which forms a protective barrier. Then I put duct seal on it. Amal twigs are not a problem as there is no heartwood.
    This is a problem with threadgrafting, as you can carry the pathogen into bye heartwood. Plan to miss the heartwood, going to one side, and alcohol on the thread. I have lost twenty year ikd Japanese Maples learning this lesson

  6. Susan Daufeldt says:

    Thank you. Very interesting and helpful. I’m working with a number of native species and it is extremely encouraging to see where others have gone before me.

  7. Janet I Nelson says:

    It looks like that weak 1:30 branch was weak from the outset, based on the earlier photos.

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